07 June 2013

On 4 November 2012, against a backdrop of feverish speculation on social media as to the identity of an unnamed leading Conservative politician of the Thatcher Government who had been accused of child abuse, Sally Bercow sent the following tweet to her 56,000 Twitter followers:

'Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*'

Lord McAlpine, the former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, sued for libel. His case claimed that the words 'innocent face' were being used insincerely or ironically by Ms Bercow to draw the readers' attention to an answer which a reasonable reader would understand that she already thought she knew, that Lord McAlpine was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care.

In fact, the allegations against Lord McAlpine were completely unfounded and he was entirely innocent of any of the very serious crimes of which he was accused.

Ms Bercow denied that her Tweet meant that, or that it meant anything defamatory of Lord McAlpine. Her case was that the question she asked in her Tweet was simply a question and that 'Innocent face' was being used sincerely to suggest she did not know the answer to the question. 

Ruling for Lord McAlpine on the preliminary issue of meaning, Mr Justice Tugendhat held that in circumstances where Ms Bercow was telling her followers that she did not know why Lord McAlpine was trending, and there was no alternative explanation for why he was trending, then the reader would infer that Ms Bercow had 'provided the last piece in the jigsaw', and that the answer to Ms Bercow's question was that Lord McAlpine was trending because he fitted the description of the unnamed abuser.

Ms Bercow has agreed to pay undisclosed damages and costs. Tweeters beware!

Jeremy Dickerson advise on defamation and intellectual property issues connected to social media including bringing and defending claims. 

Key contact

Jeremy Dickerson

Jeremy Dickerson Partner

  • Head of International 
  • Head of Intellectual Property, Media and Sport
  • Defamation and Reputation Management

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